Take Pictures of Your (Six-Legged) Roommates for Science

Citizen Science Salon iconCitizen Science Salon
By Bradley Allf
Feb 22, 2019 11:40 PMNov 19, 2019 11:52 PM


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Modern Americans spend nearly 90% of their lives indoors. Yet despite all that time inside, we know remarkably little about the life that shares our indoor spaces. This spring, a team at North Carolina State University hopes to change that by asking students to document the creatures they find in their dorms, homes, and apartments for a citizen science project called “Never Home Alone @ NCSU.”

Cockroach. Photo by C.L. Goforth, used with permission. Ever since we humans climbed down from the safety of the trees, we have been walling ourselves off from the wild outdoors. And while we may imagine our modern indoor spaces to be the exclusive domain of humans, they are in fact home to a diverse array of lifeforms. In fact, many of these species have adapted specifically to live alongside us. Yet while the creatures of our kitchens, showers, and beds share an intimacy afforded to few others, we know almost nothing about who they are and how they survive.

Moth fly. Photo by C.L. Goforth, used with permission. This dichotomy piqued the interest of Matt Bertone and Rob Dunn, two researchers at North Carolina State University. Two years ago, they set out on the first ever scientific expedition to explore the wild unknown of indoor spaces. They crawled under furniture, picked through carpet fibers, and analyzed the dusty corners and windowsills of 50 homes around Raleigh, North Carolina expecting to find a few dozen common species of fly, cockroach, and book louse. It turns out they were off by two orders of magnitude. The research team had discovered a veritable rain forest of more than 1,000 species, many of them little-studied and poorly understood. Their study revealed that we not only live alongside wildlife; our homes are in fact living, breathing ecosystems that breed a unique and diverse patchwork of creatures found nowhere else on earth. By Dunn and Bertone’s count, the arthropod diversity of their sampled homes was higher than that found in many natural ecosystems like alpine savannahs.

End-band netwing beetle (Calopteron terminale). Photo by Jackson Boone, used with permission. The study has since blossomed into a global citizen science project aptly named “Never Home Alone,” where anyone in the world can upload observations of the creatures they find in their homes to the wildlife mapping app “iNaturalist.” Since its launch in August, the project has collected crowd-sourced photographs of more than 5,000 creatures from Easter Island to Qatar. Among the observed animals are some usual suspects, like cockroaches, flies, ants, and beetles. But there have also been many surprises, from a curious abundance of giant crab spiders in southeast Asian homes to an American alligator in a garage in Florida. This spring, the project will launch a new phase, looking at a different uncharted frontier of indoor biodiversity: the college campus. The new iteration, called “Never Home Alone @ NCSU,” will open the project up to students and faculty living on or near the NC State campus that are interested in documenting the wild life of their dorms, apartments, and houses. By partnering with the public, the research team will be able to access data that they never could have gathered on their own. They can also answer new questions, like whether different cleaning regiments in dorms might influence their biodiversity, or even whether sharing your home with different types of life is associated with positive or negative health effects.

Pill bugs. Photo by Patricia O’Hare, used with permission. But beyond this, the Never Home Alone @ NCSU team hopes that project volunteers will come away with a deeper appreciation for the wilderness that is in their homes. While some may be unnerved at the idea of deliberately seeking out the leggy denizens of their basements without the express purpose of spraying them with insecticide, the truth is that we all live with wildlife. The homes sampled in Dunn’s and Bertone’s study were not dirty or decrepit. They were in fact some of the nicest in the city. A later study by Misha Leong from the California Academy of Science found that wealthier homes actually have more bugs, even after adjusting for square footage. So if you can’t ever really live alone, you might as well get acquainted with your six and eight legged tenants. You might be surprised by how beautiful some of them are, like the Crotalaria moth, or by the incredible (and beneficial) life strategies of others, like the jewel wasp, whose young feed solely on cockroaches. There is a whole ecosystem of creatures chasing prey, building homes, and raising young under our laundry baskets and sofas, and many of them are poorly understood or wholly unknown to science. In an era with no more blank spots on the map, you can still be an explorer of these wild landscape without even leaving the living room. And you just might find something amazing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oKMBH7Vzs4 Above is a short film about the project made by the author of this post, Bradley Alf. If you watch and listen closely, your home will reveal itself for what it truly is– a continuation of the web of life we have been living with for millennia. What will you find? “Never Home Alone @ NCSU” was selected as the 2019 “Wolfpack Citizen Science Challenge Project,” a program meant to engage the broader NC State University (NCSU) community in a campus-wide citizen science project. Students, faculty and staff participate in the project through the new NCSU campus portal on SciStarter. NCSU is the nation’s first Citizen Science Campus and the Wolfpack Challenge is a key component of that initiative.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

About the Author

Bradley Alf

Bradley Allf is a graduate student in the Cooper Citizen Science Lab at NC State University, a poetry editor at In Layman's Terms, and a freelance science writer.

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